I'm not an athlete. I've always disliked team sports, with their conformist, vaguely fascist associations. While as a child I longed to be a tree-climbing tomboy, I had to admit a preference for tea parties, dress-up, and long afternoons at the library.
Then one summer night, three years ago, I played my first game of bike polo. It's an elegant game: With mallets in their right hand, players ride their bikes up and down the field trying to whack a grapefruit-size ball between two orange cones. It was instant love.
Immediately I was declaring things like "This is the game I was born to play" and "If this had been around when I was younger, I'd have done it professionally." Maybe it's because I have a talent for it, or because it's a game on bicycles and I practically live on mine, or maybe it's just the endorphins kicking in, but polo nights usually end with me biking home exhausted and exhilarated.
During the breaks in the game, however, when the other players and I catch our breath, I'm overcome by a feeling of alienation the likes of which I haven't felt since high school. There I am, surrounded by a bunch of guys (I never hang around with groups of guys) who are drinking beer (I prefer wine), having just spent 20 minutes shouting things like "I've got your back!" (I cringe, mentally). As my heart rate slows and my thoughts veer back into their normal channels, I realize I'm behaving like those sporty people I've always, in my heart, despised.
"You're obviously very athletic," my doctor said at my last visit. Huh? I thought. But it's true, and it's been true all along. In addition to tea parties, my childhood also included casual games of baseball, soccer, and basketball with the neighborhood kids. So have I just been in deep denial all my life, like some sort of closeted jock, hating what I actually am?
What I hate is the culture of sports in this country. It's no accident that the ruling clique in my seventh-grade class was all the sporty girls; or that when I got to high school the popular boys were all athletes. Who hasn't lived through the oppressive pep rallies, where "school spirit" is a creepy precursor to "my country, right or wrong" patriotism? For me, sports are inextricably tied to frat boys, drunken brawls, antifeminist machismo, and a creepy rhetorical overlap with the military (sportscasters adore military metaphors as much as the Defense Department likes sports metaphors). With all the bitterness of an antisocial bookworm in a society that prizes team sports, I made up my mind early on: I wanted no part of it.
And yet, the bike polo I play has a purity of purpose, like the games I played as a kid. It doesn't matter how good you are, or even if you like your fellow players; what matters is getting enough people together to play the game.
But I'm wary during the breaks, noting the cultural warning signs (All that beer drinking! All those men!). Am I making excuses for the oppressor of my youth for my own selfish reasons? At any moment, the game could metamorphose into a "sport" where we organize teams, get sponsors, and start caring about the score. Of course, if we did get more organized, I could play more. And didn't I just claim I'd do this professionally if I could?
Next I'll be holding pep rallies.
It's scary, this realization that I have more in common with those sporty types than I thought. And taking the idea to its logical extreme, some of those wife-beating pro football players may share with me this love of the game, this joy in the pure pleasure of playing. Fortunately, I only think about it during the breaks. When we're playing, I'm too busy trying to score.